3.5 / 5
Strip away the existential anguish of The Exorcist and you've got The Conjuring, a movie that claims to be just as certain about the existence of demonic possession but lacks the sincere religious inquiry of William Friedkin's punishing 1973 classic.
Released almost exactly 40 years after that movie, The Conjuring is a surprisingly, refreshingly straightforward and restrained horror movie, a ghost story that adds on fear of the Devil, or perhaps an exorcism movie with a ghostly twist, but either way, it's a tense and memorable movie that continues the recent (and encouraging) trend of scary movies that are actually scary, not simply bloody.
Director James Wan also, interestingly, made the torture-porn Saw, a movie I can't bring myself to watch. In The Conjuring, though, there are just two or three moments where the red stuff pours out. Mostly, this is a movie filled with rattling doors and dread-laden shadows.
Set in 1971 and based on an allegedly true story, The Conjuring begins three years earlier with the introductory tale of two young nurses and a very unfriendly doll, who unleashes such a frenzy of haunted activity that they turn to Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, both of whom are both impossibly attractive and very effective). The Warren are a husband-and-wife team of ghostbusters whose practice is oriented toward demonology -- they believe in evil spirits, and they have both the emotional scars and the physical artifacts to prove it. They spend their days battling angry ghosts and their evenings giving lectures on college campuses.
(The Warrens were also involved, a few years after the events of The Conjuring, in the Amityville Horror incident, which paved the way for the kind of campy movie that this could have been, but isn't.)
Meanwhile, a middle-aged couple and their five daughters move to an old, rundown farmhouse in the middle of the New England countryside -- just where, it so happens, one of the Salem witches died, but not before cursing the land. But Carolyn and Roger (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston, both unexpected, unglamorous casting choices, and both terrific) can't turn down a bank-auction deal, so in they move.
The family dog senses something's amiss and refuses to come into the house, and Roger finds a boarded-up cellar, while Carolyn and the girls experience strange incidents at night and all the clocks stop at precisely 3:07 a.m. every night. (In the logic of the movie, there's no room for questioning things like what would happen if someone set a clock ahead 10 minutes.)
The Warrens are called into investigate, and they stumble onto the mother lode of demonic possessions. The house is a hotbed of paranormal activity, and even they're a little skittish about taking this case.
The discovery of who and what is in the house with the family allow for fun tension to mount, and director Wan is almost shockingly restrained; his scares are genuine, rarely the result of simply being startled by a crash of music or a smash-cut visual shock. Oh, they're there, of course, but mostly they're earned and work within the context of the story.
It's a good, old-fashioned horror movie. It works in every possible way you'd want a movie like this to work. While it lacks some of the visual panache of the low-budget Insidious, The Conjuring is damned scary -- and also quiet and relaxed when it needs to be. Wan and his screenwriters, Chad and Carey Hayes, trust their material, so we trust them.
It's not a deep movie, and lacks the disturbing, unforgettable challenges of faith and belief that The Exorcist forced upon its audience (and it's worth comparing the two, since there are signs The Conjuring would like to be taken that seriously.
But as an example of what can be done when a screenwriter, a director and a group of actors are determined to make a top-notch, compelling piece of entertainment -- not just a "franchise" or a merchandise-ready cinematic product -- The Conjuring excels.
Add in some nice period touches and great costuming, and The Conjuring turns out to be one of the summer's most unexpectedly compelling and fulfilling entertainments.
Viewed June 20, 2013 -- AMC Burbank 16